BWW Interview: Gordon plus Vavrek (plus Stein and Toklas) Equal '27'
With apologies to Gertrude Stein, "An opera is an opera is an opera"? Not really.
Although '27'--the opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek about the lives of Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their circle of friends--had its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) in 2014, its upcoming performances at City Center in New York, on October 20-21, are a debut of a different color.
As part of the 75th anniversary season of MasterVoices, formerly The Collegiate Chorale, 27 has had some interesting changes since the performances seen in St. Louis. It still has the same star as Gertrude, the great mezzo Stephanie Blythe, and a trio of young male singers as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway and others (famous and not). The creative team is still headed by director Jim Robinson, OTSL's Artistic Director, with scenic design by Allen Moyer, lighting by James F. Ingalls and costumes by James Schuette.
But soprano Heidi Stober is now Alice and, most significantly, this 'new' 27 features a chorus for the first time, with the participation of MasterVoices under Artistic Director Ted Sperling, conducting Orchestra of St. Luke's. "I said to Ted that I would love to create a version of 27 that uses the chorus throughout the piece, because we really wrote it as a choral opera--but without the chorus," says Gordon. "I ended up creating a new version--not changing what the actual cast does, but adding the chorus to both augment and enhance some moments, and invent others."
Those who know about the life and times of Stein have probably figured out that the title refers to her address in Paris: 27 rue de Fleurus, near the Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank. She lived there from 1903 to 1938, first with her brother Leo and then, most famously, with her life partner Alice B. Toklas, hosting salons with many of the most famous names in art and literature from the first half of the 20th century.
The idea for the opera came from Gordon, who had already had a success in St. Louis with the staged Civil War song cycle, RAPPAHANNOCK COUNTY (written with librettist Mark Campbell). "Jim Robinson came to me after RAPPAHANNOCK and said they wanted to commission an opera from me for Stephanie Blythe, whom I've known for a long time," Gordon recalls.
"Now, Stephanie is a particular singer, a particular character, a large presence. And if you're in the room with her, you know she's someone who 'presides'-- she's the center of attention by default. And I just thought 'Gertrude Stein, it's perfect'--and immediately said it."
His initial partner in the project was Michael Korie, who wrote the libretto for Gordon's well-received first full-length opera, THE GRAPES OF WRATH (based on the Steinbeck novel). But Korie dropped out late in the game, mid-March 2013, leaving a short schedule to find a replacement and compose the music. "Short," actually is an understatement, since the June 2014 premiere was looming before him and could not be changed because of Blythe's schedule.
Enter Royce Vavrek: Gordon didn't exactly have a 'vision' that pointed him toward Vavrek--whom he had met through a mutual acquaintance some time earlier--but his name did "float into my head" while he was meditating.
"And I called him and said, 'Royce, it's Ricky. If you can read 15 books and write a libretto in one month, you have the job,'" Gordon recalls in his inimitable style. Well, Vavrek didn't have the visibility then that he has today (with a pair of high profile, highly regarded operas this year: JFK with David T. Little for Dallas Opera and BREAKING THE WAVES with Missy Mazzoli at Opera Philadelphia) but he did have one big thing going for him: He's a fast study--which was critical, since he knew little about Stein other than Kathy Bates' memorable portrayal in Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.
There were some points that Gordon wanted to be sure made their way into the new work, particularly since Stein had long been a passion of his. "I knew that I wanted the paintings in the Stein-Toklas collection to sing. I told him my favorite line of Stein, which was 'before the flowers of friendship faded, friendship faded.' I told him that I didn't want to whitewash her and I wanted to explore the speculation of how she stayed safe during World War Two, including her translation of Petain's [head of Vichy France] speeches," says Gordon. (NB: Petain was tried and convicted of treason after the war.)